Art adventures abound at Spoleto Festival USA

Part of the charm of Spoleto Festival USA is the city itself, always at its best in spring. And then there’s the food: This is a place with a serious restaurant scene. But ultimately, Spoleto is for those who want to stretch their arts horizons. No other festival offers so much edgy variety in terms of music, theater, dance and other art forms. And the quality is consistently first-rate. The festival opens May 23rd, and this year’s lineup suggests another great adventure for the adventurous.

Of the multitude of events, we’ve selected a few for preview.

“Kát’a Kabanová.” Opera is always center stage at Spoleto, fittingly for a festival founded by an opera composer (Gian Carlo Menotti). Of the three operas this year, the best known is “Katya Kabanova,” written by Czech composer Leos Janacek, a highly charged work dealing with infidelity, independence, confession and suicide, all in the confines of a tiny village. The demanding title role will be sung by soprano Betsy Horne, an American singer whose career has unfolded in Germany and who will be making her professional American debut. A new production is being created by noted theater director Garry Hynes, the first woman to win a Tony award for directing. This is her first opera production. According to Nigel Redden, the festival’s general director, “Garry is a brilliant director who gets to the essence of things.” May 24-June 6.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Combining modern, jazz and ballet, the company is known for its dancers’ physicality and technique. The program includes “Quintett” by world-renowned choreographer William Forsythe, the hypnotic “Falling Angels” by Jiří Kylián and “PACOPEPEPLUTO,” a solor work by Alejandro Cerrudo set to music by Dean Martin. Performances will take place at the TD Arena, a new festival venue. May 23-25.

Wells Fargo Jazz. Highlights include jazz vocalist René Marie performing a tribute to Eartha Kitt (May 26); singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams playing her gritty mix of country-blues-rock (June 5); and mandolinist Danilo Britto leading an ensemble in Brazilian choro music (May 25).

“A Brimful of Asha.” Actor-director Ravi Jain joins his mother on stage for an intimate theatrical production about arranged marriage. May 29-June 1

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Banjo duets that blend elements of Appalachia, jazz and China featuring 15-time Grammy winner Fleck and his wife. June 1.

“Facing Goya.” Composer Michael Nyman is best known in America for his film scores, which include “The Piano.” His numerous operas have been performed mostly in Europe, usually by his own ensemble, using amplification. Spoleto decided to commission a new version of “Facing Goya” for a more traditional “unplugged” ensemble, which will also be the American premiere of the work. The work mixes sci-fi, conspiracy theory and art history, and deals with a search for the genetic basis for Francisco Goya’s genius. May 25-June 7. Nyman also performs in concert with the Spoleto USA Orchestra. May 26.

“My Cousin Rachel.” Ireland’s esteemed Gate Theatre is a regular visitor to the festival. This year it presents an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic mystery novel about love and deceit directed by Toby Frow. It’s “a play about perceptions,” commented Redden, “and will be the subject of a lot of conversations afterward over a drink.” May 22-June 8

“El Niño.” Several operas from minimalist composer John Adams have appeared in Atlanta via the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and they’re also regular features at Spoleto. This year Adams’ Nativity opera “El Niño” will be given a new production by British director John La Bouchardière. The libretto, by Adams and Peter Sellars, who directed the original production in 2000, mixes Bible scriptures, sermons, Latin American poetry and excerpts from the Apocrypha. “It is,” said Redden, “a miraculous retelling of how God becomes man.” The work has been performed numerous times in semi-staged or concert form. This will be the first fully staged production since the original Sellars concept. May 23-30

Physical Theater. For something completely different, head to one of the physical theater performances. These have become an essential part of the Spoleto experience. This years lineup include Finnish aerialist Ilona Jäntti and Australian acrobat troupe Gravity & Other Myths.

According to Redden, ticket sales are better than at this point any previous year, so it’s best to plan ahead if you want to get in to the most popular events. And hotel space is always at a premium, especially if you want to stay “on the tongue” (the downtown peninsula), so book ahead.

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